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Turkey: Governing Party Could Be Emboldened By New Mandate

By Breffni O'Rourke
Turkey -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine greet theit supporters in Ankara, 22Jul2007
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife greet supporters in Ankara on July 22
July 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development party (AK) has emerged the clear winner from parliamentary elections, indicating the public is happy with the government's successful economic program and pro-European stance.

The electorate seems to have given scant regard to the opposition's fears that the AK party plans to Islamize Turkey by stealth. But tensions remain on that issue, and the army, the guarantor of the Turkish Republic's secular status, has not signaled its attitude toward continued AK rule.

By unofficial figures, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK party has taken nearly half the votes cast in the July 22 elections, putting it well ahead of its nationalist and secularist rivals and giving it a comfortable majority in parliament.

A New Mandate

In victory comments to jubilant party supporters in Ankara, Erdogan said democracy in Turkey has "successfully passed a test" and that the republic "has emerged stronger from the ballot box." He pledged continuity of the country's outward-looking policies.

"Now will be the time to see how deep and democratic their commitment is; until now I would say they have not made a bad job in the context of Turkish democracy," one analyst said.

"We will consistently continue to work toward European Union membership in accordance with the goals of our republic," Erdogan said. "Our nation's interests and desire for a better life will always be our guide and our goal."

Certainly Erdogan can claim impeccable democratic credentials, in that the electorate appears to have given him the strongest backing any Turkish party has gained since the 1960's.

Turkish political analyst Murat Akgun told Reuters television that despite Erdogan's pledge of continuity, this could embolden the AK party to move in new directions.

"Now it's clear they have the clear majority support of the Turkish society, and as a result they will feel themselves much more comfortable for any change, but I do not expect -- at least in the short term -- dramatic, radical changes in their policies," Akgun said.

It's exactly this possibility for change that the secularists fear -- namely, that the AK party could start flirting with political Islam, bearing in mind that it is the successor to a banned Islamist party. The nervousness of the secularists was evident in the circumstances that led up to the early parliamentary elections.

Erdogan called the vote in the face of parliament's refusal to endorse his choice for state president, then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The opposition feared that Gul, a fervent Muslim and ex-Islamist, was a danger to the strict secularism introduced by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Millions of secularist Turks took to the streets to protest Gul's candidacy, and the army generals issued an ominous midnight statement saying they would step in if necessary to protect secularism.

Economic Concerns Trump Islamization Fears

Erdogan has repeatedly denied that the AK party intends to mix religion with state affairs. He repeated this during his victory comments on July 22.

"As you can see, one thing that unites all of us is our goals," he said. "We will empower our democratic, secular government based on social laws."

The strong showing of the AK party has put the Turkish Army in an awkward position. It has not reacted to the election result, but has to take into account that the population has evidently put its trust in that party. As analyst Oktay Aksoy of Bilkent University in Turkey puts it, the voters have shown that the issue of secularism is not their prime concern, but rather the state of the economy.

The European Union has warmly welcomed what European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called Erdogan's "impressive victory."

Analyst Walter Posch of the EU Institute for Security Studies says Brussels has reason to be pleased with Erdogan's pledge to continue the membership negotiations. Posch says this process is of enormous importance for nourishing the development of Turkish democracy.

"What is a very, very useful help is simply the membership perspective, because democratic reform in Turkey is tied to the EU prospect," Posch said.

Posch also says the scale of the AK party's victory gives it a special task to act responsibly.

"Now will be the time to see how deep and democratic their commitment is; until now I would say they have not made a bad job in the context of Turkish democracy," Posch said.

The financial markets have reacted positively to the election result.

Turkish shares hit a record high today on the Istanbul Stock Exchange on the prospect of continuation of the economic policies of the past five years. Turkey has achieved a growth rate of around 7 percent a year under the AK party, which curbed inflation and attracted record direct foreign investment.

Copyright (c) 2007 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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